3 steps to courageous leadership

By Louise Mathias|18 April 2021
3 steps to courageous leadership

Leadership and conflict resolution skills are interchangeable, but one common trait that celebrated leaders all have is courage, writes Louise Mathias.

When you think of the world’s highest performing, influential, courageous leaders, such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Warren Buffett, Ernest Shackleton and Oprah Winfrey to name a few, some overcame immense obstacles, they all made mistakes and failed, yet they led with high impact, changing people’s lives drastically. How did they become that way?

It’s important to recognise the qualities these leaders embodied; they include:

  • Winston Churchill: inspired, passionate, courageous, strategic insight, problem-solver.
  • Martin Luther King Jr: integrity, influence, courage, inclusivity, diversity and peace.
  • Nelson Mandela: self-sacrifice, empathy, learning mindset, ethical, humanity, service of others, positive, courageous, excellent negotiator and humble.
  • Warren Buffett: Communicated effectively, courageous, transparent, patient, managed time wisely, took risks and learned from his mistakes and failures and he was intentional about treating everyone equally.
  • Ernest Shackleton: managed collective fear, understood the greatest enemies to people relying on him included high levels of anxiety, disengagement and prolonged pessimism, he was vulnerable as he kept his courage and confidence high even when he was not in control of the outcome, he dealt with life and death setbacks constructively.
  • Oprah Winfrey: dreams a vision, communicates it to her team with clarity, inspires her team to help her see her dream/vision through, impartial, open to new experiences, innovator, money has never been her focus, cares about others beyond her inner circle (equity).

It turns out these courageous leaders had a completely different mindset, daily patterns, approaching leadership, negotiation, professional and self-development in a way that helped them conquer their struggles, fears, setbacks and at the same time, climb to the top as courageous legendary leaders. 


Leadership and conflict resolution skills are interchangeable, as celebrated leaders are exemplary conflict resolvers. One of the major traits these iconic leaders all possess is courage, to do the right thing, even when it’s hard, to take consistent action despite fear, even under the most extreme, trying circumstances. 

With this in mind, what often gets leaders (and conflict resolvers) into trouble, and it must be remembered they are often under daily overwhelming pressure to perform, win, conform, be profitable, is at the same time, their use of fear and uncertainty as a weapon, basing their actions and decisions on fear rather than leading with courage. 

Those who have a sense of superiority and arrogance often engage in self-interested behaviour, where there is little or no care for others’ wellbeing, thoughts, feelings or potential, dehumanising others by failing to treat people as humans, worthy of respect and kindness, rather people are treated as objects to be exploited, with short-term gains in mind, dismissing long-term benefits, to enhance the leaders’ (or conflict resolvers’) or organisations’ interests, or even going so far as to view and treat others as the enemy, judging them less worthy of protection from harm.

For the most part, fear and self-interested, dehumanising leadership lead to increased aggression, bullying, harassment, mistreatment, group rejection and exclusion, queen bees, in teams, organisation cultures and conflict resolution. 

To put it another way, what result from ineffective fear-based leadership are poor mental health, disengagement, poor productivity, low morale, people intentionally decreasing the quality of their work, a lack of teamwork, silos within the organisation, time taken away from work to avoid the offender, lowered performance, lack of commitment to the organisation and toxic cultures. Poor, fear-based leadership comes at a high cost although not always overt; it costs Australian and New Zealand businesses $70 billion a year.


Is leadership related to position, status, power or authority? Simply put NO! People are promoted to leadership positions, however, not all are “leaders”, often they only manage tasks. 

First, second and third, leadership in its broad sense, is a team sport, where trust is established, influence, value driven, courageous communication, behaviour, relationships are cultivated in safe cultures. It’s firstly, role-modelled by the leader to achieve a common goal, driven by things other than the leader’s own selfish gain.

It’s important to realise, you don’t need to be appointed or promoted to take action to learn to lead and influence others as best as you can, you lead or influence others, every day. All humans are influential leaders, the question is whether you are a positive or negative leader?

It’s time to elevate the leadership and conflict resolution conversations and lift courageous leadership and conflict resolution practices, ensuring courageous leadership and conflict resolution, are the vision and standard, to work towards.

Why courage? Leaders and conflict resolvers are under internal and external pressure to conform. It takes courage and it’s really hard, to take consistent action despite uncertainty and fear, to take risks, to go against the grain, to step outside of their comfort zone, to break traditions that are often accepted without challenge, to initiate change, to try new, ask for help, ask for what you want and say what you think and respectfully stand up for what you believe in, and to do the right thing, even when it may cost, without guarantee of outcome success. 

The risks are real, when you say “I’m going to learn how to lead effectively (or resolve conflict differently)” and then lead (and resolve conflict) differently as that means, from that point on, you need to learn how and then demonstrate empathy, listen to understand others, show respect to all, give credit to others, take responsibility when bad things happen, hold yourself and others accountable for non-value-driven behaviour, cultivate a belonging culture, create a learning environment, and engage in consistent difficult conversations, which are expected as part of the culture, where courage is normalised. This can be a hard pill to swallow. It takes courage to be a great leader (and conflict resolver), however, the rewards are exceptional.

  1. Inventory of self

How do you view your role? What do you stand for? What are your values? Are you aware of and clear about who you are, your strengths and weaknesses? What’s important to you? What’s your vision for your future best self? How do you want to lead and resolve conflict?

a) Every iconic leader is willing to apply the first leadership principle “be honest with yourself, know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses”.

b) You want to give yourself every opportunity to lead (and resolve conflict) in a way you know you are capable of. You may be proud of your innate strengths and rely on them to leverage you to the next level of leadership and conflict resolution skill and success. As much as you may think your strengths are all you need to reach great heights, they aren’t enough in themselves. What helped you get to this level, may not be enough to get you to higher levels.

c) If you have parts of you, weaknesses, that diminish your ability to lead or resolve conflict effectively, they need to be levelled up. This takes courage, to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and work towards the future best version of yourself.

d) It’s only possible to move to a higher level of leadership and conflict resolution mastery, when you amplify your strengths and level up your big weaknesses and learn new skills. Your weaknesses and lack of courage to learn and try “new”, are what hold you back, lessen your mastery, making it unable for you to reach your full potential and your greatest levels of leadership and conflict resolution success. 

A lot of leadership and conflict resolution skills and high-performance mastery come down to your mindset: self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation and emotional intelligence.

“We are not perfect human beings, nor do we have to pretend to be, but it is necessary for us to be the best version of ourselves, we can be.” – Unknown

  1. Social interaction

How do you treat, motivate, influence and inspire people? What’s vision do you have for your team? What culture do you want to create? What behaviour, communication, treatment of others do you role-model and accept in your teams and conflict resolution?

a) When you, as a leader permit in (cool)/out (uncool) groups, favouritism (systemic bias) or avoid tough conversations, talk about people behind their back and not directly, see leadership, the workplace and resolving conflict as an environment where fears or feelings are excluded and kept at the door, where failure is avoided at all costs (even ethical costs) as perfectionism is promoted, there is a lack innovation, as no one wants to take risks, finger-pointing and blame are common, values are on the wall in the office and used as taglines, however, they aren’t operationalised in behaviours, let’s be clear, you are creating barriers to courageous leadership, teams, organisations and conflict resolution.

b) For this reason, when a leader (and conflict resolver) has a vision to create a learning, curious culture, leaning into the discomfort of difficult, honest, open, clear, kind, trusting conversations, telling people what you believe (not legal argument/position), what you stand for, what the organisation stands for, this takes large amounts of courage to show authenticity. When teams hear your truth and their opinions are enlisted, pulling them in the process of creating a culture, which you are asking them to support, they will support you, more readily.

c)   You will make mistakes in the process, courageously admit when you are wrong, don’t paint over it, keep learning, keep pursuing and strengthening your courage as you lead, and make it right!

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr

  1. Service

Why are you doing what you are doing, apart from financial security or status? Why do you want others to join you? What big difference do you want to make to your teams, conflict resolution, legal practice, others development and success, or something completely different that’s meaningful to you, contributing something beyond your own self-interest?

a) Stop thinking about hierarchy and think how about how you can bring people together, connecting, to do something they aren’t already doing.

b) Your service as a leader and conflict resolver is to courageously care for people (holistically), to humanise the workplace and conflict resolution practices, as well as make sure the job gets done, where everyone is given the tools to perform at high levels.

c) When you show up to serve, pretending everything is fine, under control, and others are under extreme stress, you are setting up unrealistic expectation for others to do the same. Embrace each other’s imperfections to create safety for everyone to be vulnerable, honest, authentic, showing no human came off a “perfect” machine. As a courageous leader, you devote your service and energy to others, creating a safe space where teamwork and service of others are the focus for all, thinking bigger than self, working together in a courageous culture to achieve higher results.

Personal, professional and leadership skills and mastery need to be approached holistically. 

People get disappointed, lose hope, get upset and angry, frustrated and hurt, there is emotion in every part of leadership and conflict resolution. 

If you want to be a courageous leader and conflict resolver, courageously focus on being the best version of yourself, as a leader and when resolving conflict, have a courageous vision for your team and culture, and serve others with excellence, beyond self-interest, be clear about the reason you do what you do.

“The key to realising a dream is to focus not on success but on significance – and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.” – Oprah Winfrey

Tomorrow is a fresh start, a clean slate…have an intention to get better tomorrow!

Louise Mathias is a holistic barrister, mediator, coach and consultant.

3 steps to courageous leadership
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